Henrietta Lacks was an African American tobacco farmer whose cells were taken for research without her knowledge in 1951 while being treated for cervical cancer. The “immortal cell line” became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and much more.
The HeLa cells, which is what scientists named them, have made pharmaceutical companies, cell banks and biotech companies billions of dollars, yet Henrietta’s family never received any compensation.
Henrietta’s story had remained virtually unknown until 2010, when author Rebecca Skloot exposed the incredible tale in her bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
“The book tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.”
Since its launch, the book has received critical acclaim, spent more than 75 weeks on the bestseller list, and is being brought to life in a movie for HBO starring Oprah Winfrey, which is currently in production.
If you want to learn more, but don’t want to wait for the film, we suggest you check out “The Immortal Rap of Henrietta Lacks” video above, written and performed by 7th and 8th graders from KIPP Bridge Charter in Oakland, California.
According to KQED, the students researched and wrote the lyrics, setting them to the songs “Right Hand,” “Shell Shocked,” and “Work.” The kids received help from their performing arts teacher Shannon Perkins, and educator Tom McFadden, who runs a small organization devoted to the intersection of science and the arts. Mr. McFadden sent drafts of the piece to Henrietta Lacks’ granddaughter for review and with her approval, created this awesome project.
More at www.rebeccaskloot.com